UCLA looks to prove itself in key road games ahead

LOS ANGELES — The next two weeks of the season are going to define UCLA.

Road games at No. 13 Stanford and No. 2 Oregon will determine whether the Bruins are truly among the elite teams and deserving of their first top-10 ranking since 2005 and, dare I say, in the BCS Championship Game conversation.

Or, maybe it will show that they just aren’t there quite yet: a team still on the verge.

“These games mean a lot,” said quarterback Brett Hundley. “They really do. As far as team, and legacies and stuff like that, these are big-time games that everybody will look back on. We’ve just got to come ready.”

Last season, the Cardinal bested the Bruins twice in back-to-back week. The second, most painful loss possibly of the season came in the pouring rain at Stanford Stadium when a trip to the Rose Bowl, and a Pac-12 championship, was on the line.

The team with so much promise and so many other big wins fell short.

It didn’t sit well with the Bruins and those emotions are starting to come to the surface as they get ready to travel to the Bay Area.

“In the locker room after the game, there was a sense of what was coming,” said head coach Jim Mora. “We try to take the approach that every game carries the same value. We’re all human.

“When you get a chance to go play Stanford, things ramp up.”

One of just 13 unbeaten teams left in the AP Top 25 poll, these Bruins are trying to prove that this time they’re for real. After Saturday’s 37-10 win over Cal – a game performance that the team didn’t feel was their best – Hundley said he knows the team can be the best in the country. Mora has repeatedly said that’s the direction he intends to steer this program in.

“I feel like we have the talent on the team and we have the leadership and the coaches and everything – it’s primed,” Hundley said. “This is a great year for us to be able to do big things and the way we’ve set ourselves up in the first five games it really helped us in that conversation.

“As long as we keep winning, our opportunities will multiply as they are seized.”

The next two games in particular may help bolster the Heisman Trophy credentials.
Considered a dark horse contender at the moment, the redshirt sophomore is currently ranked No. 9 in the FBS in total offense averaging 345.8 yards per game and he’s ranked in the top-25 in passing efficiency and completions.

The amount of night games on the West Coast hasn’t given Hundley as much exposure as some better-known candidates, but nearly all of his statistics rival those of Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and reigning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M.

By all accounts, his 410 passing yards against Cal, the third-most by a Bruin in UCLA history, still weren’t good enough. He lamented his 10 incompletions instead of his newly smashed record.

“Sometimes he wants to be so perfect instead of just breathing a little bit,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “He’s a very meticulous, very smart, very bright young man.
He likes to know everything and where everything goes. Sometimes I tell him, ‘Just go play. Just throw it to our guys – they’ll catch it for you. Instead of putting it exactly there or exactly here.’

“But that’s what makes him the good quarterback that he is.”

For Hundley and the Bruins, the 2013 season is about to get real.